EU leaders back ‘enlargement’ for the Balkans – but not anytime soon – POLITICO
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KRANJ, Slovenia – At a summit that was a showcase of duplicity and double talk, dreams and despondency, and the disconnect between genuine intentions and harsh reality, EU leaders proclaimed their support for the membership of six Western Balkan countries to their club, while admitting that the entry process was effectively blocked.
Expectations for Wednesday’s summit, the centerpiece of the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU, were so low that EU leaders and national officials in the Western Balkans all managed to come away relatively optimistic despite the near absence. total progress, and numerous media reports citing how Brussels was not keeping its promises.
As a sign of how extremely difficult the policy of adding new member countries has become, summit organizers celebrated the fact that the leaders’ final statement included only one mention of “enlargement” – a word that opponents to the increase in the size of the EU had fought fiercely to prevent an appearance in the text.
And as further proof of the deeply tense situation, the start of membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania – which have already received the green light from Brussels – are being blocked mainly by Bulgaria, a country that has hosted its own Western Balkans summit in 2018 and claimed credit for putting enlargement back on track. The government in Sofia has delayed the accession of North Macedonia due to disputes over history and language, which it says must first be resolved. Therefore, it also hinders Albania, as the EU has effectively linked the candidacies of the two countries.
The whole situation seemed to come together in a video clip showing Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte chatting amicably as they arrived at the summit in torrential rain, then insisting that the other enter first – an argument of etiquette which led the men to back down on the red carpet, while each tried to push the other forward.
In a closing press conference, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that the EU’s arms were wide open on the Western Balkans.
“The Commission’s message is very clear,” she said. “First of all, the Western Balkans are part of the same Europe as the European Union. We share the same story. We share the same interests, the same values and, I am deeply convinced, also the same destiny. And the European Union is not complete without the Western Balkans.
“Thus,” she continued, “my Commission will continue to do everything possible to advance the process of enlargement and European integration of the region. We want the Western Balkans in the European Union. There is no doubt that our goal is enlargement.
But moments later, at the same press conference, von der Leyen admitted that while the Balkan countries have all undertaken reforms to meet EU membership requirements, the EU is not delivering on its part. of the market.
“In the meantime, the European Union must also keep its promises,” she said. “And in particular, the lack of a decision to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania jeopardizes our position and influence in the region.”
And yet von der Leyen has always applauded the leadership’s endorsement of a single line including the word enlargement. “If you look at our statement, it’s a very clear statement that our commitment to enlargement is in the very first paragraph. It shows our willingness here to move forward, ”she said.
European Council President Charles Michel also spoke about the importance of the Western Balkans for the EU and celebrated the leaders’ statement.
“Today’s declaration is substantial, dense, it sets out many concrete, tangible issues around our relations. It has been validated by all the leaders ”, declared Michel.
But he also said, “It’s no secret… there is an ongoing discussion among the 27 about our ability to welcome new members. On this subject, it is clear that we still have to make progress.
EU leaders were keen to highlight their efforts to provide economic and other assistance to the countries of the Western Balkans, as accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro are advancing steadily. turtle, those with Albania and North Macedonia have not yet started, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have not even been given the green light for talks.
While much of the aid was previously announced, EU leaders trumpeted its potential impact on Wednesday. The efforts could reduce mobile phone roaming charges, improve rail and water transport connectivity, strengthen market integration, provide additional coronavirus vaccines and advance a ‘green agenda’ investment program anchored by 9 billion euros in grants over the next seven years.
Western Balkan leaders and officials have been cautious due to low expectations. they tried to put an optimistic turn to the general state of relations, saying the leaders’ statement was stronger than those of the two previous summits in Croatia and Bulgaria.
“I think it is good that they managed to reaffirm their commitment to the enlargement process – these words were not used in Zagreb, these words were not used in Sofia,” said one senior official in the Western Balkans.
But the official said time was running out for the EU to keep its promises. “We have the political signal,” the official said. “But to restore people’s confidence that this is really the reality, that they can count on the EU when they say: ‘Your future is with us’, I think we will have to act.”
Zoran Zaev, the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, who added “North” to his name in 2018 to end a dispute with Greece and advance his application for EU membership, took advantage of the summit to criticize Bulgaria and its president Rumen Radev, for delaying the start of talks.
“Today,” Zaev said in a statement, “we had another strong reaffirmation that only one EU member state opposes our integration and the opening of accession negotiations with the European Union”.
He called the Bulgarian opposition an “insult to Macedonian citizens” and proclaimed that “the Macedonian people, although friendly, cannot justify the blockades”.
Moreover, after a meeting on the sidelines with Radev, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Zaev’s government said in a statement: the two countries with the intention of reaching a solution.
At the summit, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, delivered a speech in which he said: “We welcome today’s statement with some reservations.
Upon his arrival, Kurti said: “In our relations with the EU, we are critical, but without being bitter and without being afraid. Asked later about the summit’s declaration, the PM said: “Of course I am critical, because it could have been better, but I still hope that the EU stays true to its essence, which is enlargement “.
In the case of Kosovo, some of its reservations are linked to its persistent border conflict with Serbia, but the general feeling of welcoming the summit results with reservations seemed widespread.
At the closing press conference, Michel returned to the issue of the EU’s military capabilities, which leaders discussed at a dinner Tuesday evening, and said the main conclusion in his mind was that the strengthening Europe’s independent defense capabilities would no longer be seen as potentially undermining NATO or a threat to partnerships with the United States
“For us, it is not about NATO, or about European defense,” Michel said. “We want a strong European Union, including in defense – a strong European Union in defense is in itself a way to strengthen our alliances and strengthen our alliances.”
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi stressed that for the EU to progress in defense, it needs a more coherent and unified foreign policy.
“We hear a lot about strategic autonomy in defense, but if there is no common foreign policy, it is very difficult to think of a common defense,” said Draghi.
The Italian leader said he would prefer a pan-European approach. “We can get there in two ways: we are inside the European Union, and if it doesn’t work, we can get there in the traditional way, with alliances between countries, several countries of the European Union. . It is clear that the first way to proceed is far better, ”he said, adding:“ There is no doubt that now is the time to think about it and think about it seriously.
Meanwhile, Zaev said the EU should start thinking about itself more broadly. “North Macedonia is Europe,” he said in his statement. “The Western Balkans is Europe! “
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.